Kuching: Why your travel memories should be sketchy

Kuching in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is one of Malaysia’s hidden gems. While it’s not a major transport hub, like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, it is well worth seeing – and as I was to find out, it is worth seeing through a sketchbook. You see, I was there as part of the Urban Sketchers AsiaLink meetup. For those who may not have encountered them, the Urban Sketchers movement has around 140,000 members worldwide, and each country has their own groups. Their aim is “to see the world, one sketch at a time”. And it is open to all ages and skill levels – which is just as well, as I consider myself pretty much a novice at drawing.

So why should a novice sketcher take a sketchbook and pencils to an international meet-up of sketchers? I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not about the drawing. It is all about the looking. Just as using a camera has taught me to see the world in a particular way, sketching takes this to a whole other level. A photograph might take a couple of minutes to get a good composition and an appreciation of some elements of the subject, but sketching means you are looking in detail at the subject for perhaps an hour or two. Photography has taught me to see, sketching has taught me to see deeper. For example, when I photographed the Kuching Legislative Assembly building (Parliament House), I completely failed to notice the pink inner wall behind the outer pillars. Yet when I sat to sketch it, I found myself taking in that detail. And yes the sketch is pretty rough, but I gained a new appreciation for the building.

Legislative Assembly Building, Kuching

If I could miss something as obvious as the colour of the wall, what else do we miss when we stop for a quick ‘selfie’? Sometimes we see more by seeing less. By that I mean, it is sometimes better to slow down, see fewer sites in more detail, and in the process see more and understand more about those things we do see.

Kuching has a vibrant art scene, reflected in the brilliant and creative wall murals. I love how they’ve incorporated a real wheelbarrow for this barrow of monkeys 🙂

wall mural, Kuching

The word ‘Kuching’ is the Malay word for ‘cat’ so the cat theme permeates the town, including a Cat Museum filled with cat-themed sculptures and popular culture references to cats.

And just next to the James Brooke Cafe and Bistro there is a wonderful cat sculpture – which is itself a playground for some of the local cats

cat sculpture Kuching

We ate at the bistro several times – great food and wonderful ambience looking out over the river. Here is the view from our table in the evening

View from James Brooke Bistro

The name James Brooke comes up frequently in Kuching – it seems he was quite a character. Born in India to British parents, briefly educated in England, he returned to India with the Bengal Army. He was wounded in Burma during the uprising, subsequently resigning his commission. With a £30,000 inheritance, he bought a 142-ton schooner – The Royalist – and set off to make his fortune in the Malay Archipelago. The timing was fortunate, just in time to use his ship to help crush a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, who in his gratitude, made him Rajah of Sarawak. So James Brooke became the first white Rajah of Sarawak – where he ruled until his death.

The historic Brooke Dockyard, begun in 1907 and completed in 1912 – the year the Titanic sunk – was important in keeping the Rajah’s boats in good repair. The dry dock and associated engineering works are still in use today. On the sketch-walk with the Kuching Urban Sketchers, we were given some limited access to the dock, which is normally closed to visitors.

Brooke Dockyard, Kuching

A group of us hired a traditional Sampan/Tambang to take us up the river, from which we could see the vibrant fishing industry and local fishing villages along the river bank. It was quite something to see the jungle reach down to the river so close to the town. Our boat trip took us up the river some distance, and we were taken to sample the delights of a traditional Sarawak cake shop. The cakes were delicious, though some appeared to be a triumph of chemistry over nature…

Sarawak cakes

I think the blue and yellow ones were called ‘Michael Jackson’ cakes. We saw variations of these all over Kuching.

fishing village kuching

Later we were taken on a sketch-walk through a fishing village on the opposite bank, and on to Fort Margherita built in 1879 – named for James Brooke’s wife. The people live simply, growing vegetables in the village garden and fishing on the river. I don’t know how they reacted to the sudden arrival of some 30 sketchers, but the children happily pointed out which houses they lived in, and took great interest in the drawings.

fisherman, Kuching

Fort Margherita was built to protect the town from pirates – which plagued the reign of James Brooke and his dynasty. It was subsequently used as a police station. In 1971, it was handed over to the local government and is now a museum – well worth a visit. There is also a wonderful view over the river and the town of Kuching.

Fort Margherita, Kuching

A further sketch-walk along India Street provided a colourful shopping experience along the shop-houses and beneath a spectacular modern glass shade

India Street, Kuching

But for me, the charm lay in the traditional shop-houses and the range of goods, both modern and traditional available. It is a feast for the senses – literally – as the smell of spices mingles with that of polished timber, and bright colours and the sound of motorbikes and people and bustle. It is a vibrant town.

India Street

And of course, you are never too far from the wet market where you can buy fresh fish caught that morning and brought in by small boat and barrow.

fish market, Kuching

It was great to see the place through the eyes of the locals – they know the best eating places for Laksa and satays, and it was pretty special being led on sketch-walks through different parts of the town, with details large and small being pointed out. And so we got to see the place through the eyes of those who draw it, and in the process, learned to see with fresh eyes, and with greater depth than we would ever have done if we had gone as a tourist, rather than as a sketcher.

Do you have sketchy memories? Why not contact the Urban Sketchers in your local community and see for yourself the delights of seeing a place through your own sketchbook!

Urban Sketchers in Kuching

Practicalities: Direct flights are available from Singapore and KL. Bring tropical strength (DEET) mosquito repellant, and dress for heat and humidity. Currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). Power is 230V with English power sockets. Language: Malay, though English is widely spoken. Dialling code is +60.

Things to do: Visit the textiles museum, the Cat Museum, the Chinese Kuching museum, see Orangutans (means humans of the forest) at the Orangutan Sanctuary, take a Sampan/Tamban ride up the river, visit Fort Margherita.

Favourite foods: Laksa, Satay.

I stayed at the Hilton Kuching – but have no affiliation with them and received no free benefits from any of the places or groups mentioned in this post.

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Pack a light heart – and travel positively

How do we stay positive when we travel? We’ve all been there. The flight gets cancelled, the accommodation is unavailable, the unexpected happens. We experience frustration – often magnified when we travel, perhaps compounded by language difficulties and cultural differences. What happens next is up to us.

Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful

There is a saying I heard from fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, along the lines of: “Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful.” And I think that’s worth exploring a little further. For me, it relates to the idea of expectations. We anticipate our holiday, We see photos on Pinterest or Instagram of our desired destination, and we read the Trip Adviser reviews, that give our dream destination five stars. By the time we board our plane, train or bus, we have already travelled to our destination in our minds, we have pictured the perfect weather, the fantastic view from the hotel, and of course, we are in the pleasant company of young happy fellow tourists.

wine with baguette

With such expectations, we are rarely reaching into the unknown, and we pay good money to have a good time – hard earned by an exchange of time and effort out of our finite lives. So we feel entitled to have a good time, and we’ll stamp our feet if we don’t!

But the reality of our holiday might look a bit different. That beachfront hotel that looked idyllic until the tide came into the room (yes it happened). The quaint French hotel is being renovated around you (also happened), and the room looks out over the gas works (actually just a brick wall). Our fellow tourists raise a chorus of complaints as they realise that the place is just a bit more squalid than the brochures led us to believe.

Albergeue sign

With such thwarted expectations, our holiday seems doomed to failure. For this reason, the philosopher Alain de Botton advises that we might be better off if we were pessimists. That way, we won’t expect too much, and we’ll feel relieved that the experience was perhaps not so bad as it might have been. He argues that we should heed the call of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who suggests that we must keep in mind at all times the worst case scenario. Seneca warned that all versions of our experience are possible, and therefore we should not be surprised when our worst fears are fulfilled, as he says: “Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened?”

toxic air headline

But what if there was a more positive way to approach travel? The pilgrims I met on the Camino were not pessimists. Neither were they overly optimistic, but they were positive. What is it that was different among the pilgrims, as opposed to other travellers? Let’s return for a moment to the pilgrim saying – tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful. They trudge for days or weeks through mud and rough tracks, yet are still able to stand in awe of a medieval cathedral or a simple sunrise. What did I learn from being a pilgrim?

pilgrim sunrise

Firstly, while each is on a personal journey, they look out for others. It is not about ‘me’, it is about the journey we are all on. Secondly, although each has done their research, and seen the photos, and read the accounts of others’ journeys, it is without too many expectations. This is about mindfulness, experiencing that moment across each moment of each day. And remember, each day is its own journey. Pilgrims recognise that if their phone charger breaks, or the plumbing gives hot water from the cold tap and vice versa, all these are first-world problems. Pilgrims feel privileged to be on the journey. Being mindful means that you take things as you find them. Each day is different, and each day we are alive beats the alternative. It is about experiencing the strange, whether it is unfamiliar foods, or the struggle to communicate in a foreign language, or the daily battle with blisters or the weather. Each day brings a new joy, a new taste, a new connection with someone. Above all, a new focus for our attention.

Pack a light heart and the rest will follow

Another pilgrim saying is: “the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears”. I reckon that’s pretty well spot on. We try to anticipate everything that could go wrong, and pack accordingly. Often I went on business trips carrying a travel iron – just in case – but the reality is that hotels have irons, or you can use clothes that don’t require ironing, or you can improvise (hint: hang them in the bathroom while you shower, and roll rather than fold your clothes). The iron was a symbol of my fear.

These days, I try to sort those fears into first world problems and real problems. And I have halved the weight. I can travel for several days with just a carry-on bag. I plan clothing for layers, carry enough underwear for 3-4 days, a notebook, pen and minimal tech and travel docs. If I’m hosteling then a small travel towel goes in, and for weather, it’s a jacket and/or hat. Research the destination, and go. I’ve rarely missed something I’ve forgotten, and if I do, I try not to beat myself up over it – I can always buy another toothbrush!

St Martin in the Fields

You can be part of a virtuous circle.

It can seem natural to join in when someone complains, and in the process, it feels like you are being part of the tribe. You get validation, perhaps sympathy – especially if your story of woe can top that of the previous speaker. But consider for a moment, whether you want to remember that experience with such negativity, or perhaps there is a more positive way to see things – a different part of the experience on which to focus our attention.

Perhaps others try to put you down or better your epic survival story about the local sanitation, with a story with their own? The best response is to thank them and smile – often other people’s put-downs or one-downmanship are a sign of their own childish fear and insecurity and have nothing to do with your experience. They will quickly forget you, and you don’t need to carry their burden as your own. It is, after all, their monkey and theirs alone.

And if it’s a local having a bad day – perhaps they’ve seen one too many complaining tourist – and at the end of the day, I do get to go home, while the locals deal with x every day. I always try to remember that there is a lot to be grateful for – such as the privilege we have to travel, the privilege we have that we can choose to go home if we want to, or to find another place. Or even just hold that thought, and pause before stoking the fire of negativity. We don’t always have to be happy, but we can be positive. If we travel gratefully, like the pilgrims, and with a light heart, our own journey will be lighter – and our packs too!

Big Ben

Arles: Van Gogh’s CafeTerrace at Night – then and now

Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.


Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.

Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:

“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”

– [Source:  www.vangoghletters.org].

There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones  – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.


Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]

The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂

As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.